Companies must be given permission to recruit more workers from overseas to ease shortages and ensure enough food can be picked, processed and brought to shops, the organisations said.
In an open letter to Boris Johnson, organised by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), 12 food and drink trade groups said the food and farming sector is on a “knife edge” due to a “crippling” shortage of workers across the entire supply chain.
They have asked the government to introduce a new ‘Covid Recovery Visa’ which would enable firms to hire more foreign workers to come to Britain and plug the holes in the sector.
“Without it, more shelves will go empty and consumers will panic buy to try to get through the winter,” the letter warns.
“That is why we must have an urgent commitment from you to enable the industry to recruit from outside the UK over the next 12 months to get us through the winter and to help us save Christmas.”
The new visa would only last 12 months and be a short-term emergency response to the labour shortages that have seen numerous shops and restaurants unable to keep their shelves filled.
As well as big names, including McDonald’s, struggling to keep all their products available, there is a parallel shortage of labour in the fields, meaning tonnes of edible food is going to waste.
“[It is] a travesty that this is happening in parallel with UK food producers disposing of perfectly edible food as it either cannot be picked, packed, processed or transported to the end customer,” said Minette Batters, the head of the NFU.
“Every day there are new examples of food waste across the industry, from chicken to pork, fruit and vegetables, dairy and many other products. The food is there, but it needs people to get it to the consumers.”
The letter also demands a permanently expanded seasonal workers scheme for British farms and an official review into the impact of the end of free movement on the food sector since Britain’s departure from the EU .
A government spokesman insisted Britain still had a “highly resilient food supply chain”, which was coping well in handling the “unprecedented challenges” of recent times.
“This year we expanded the Seasonal Workers Pilot to 30,000 visas for workers to come to the UK for up to six months,” he added.
“We continue to work closely with industry to understand labour demand and supply, including both permanent and seasonal workforce requirements.”
However, in the longer term, the government wanted employers to invest in the domestic workforce rather than relying on labour from abroad, he also said.